From the island of Chios, you can clearly see Turkey just 5 miles off the east coast and it is hard not to look at this narrow sea channel without thinking about the hundreds of thousands who have crowded into dinghies and attempted the journey. At the height of the summer season, these thoughts jar with the thousands of tourists who are now sunbathing and having fun on the beaches.
This shocking contrast is also played out in the port. Just around the corner from cafes and souvenir shops, about 800 refugees are tucked into the moat of the castle, living in cramped and depressing unofficial camp of Souda. Unless you went looking for it, you’d never see it. And unless you went looking, you’d never see the official camp of Vial about 5 miles up the mountain with another 1,000 refugees.
We spent two days there to see if there was anything we could do to help. There are already hard-working organisations and individuals making a difference, many of them generously giving their time to help us understand the situation. From what we heard, the challenges are daunting.
While clothing does not appear to be in high demand, there is a clear need for improved nutrition. Boredom, frustration and a sense of hopelessness are traumatising already traumatised people so mental health is poor. With the withdrawal of key EU funding, many of the large NGOs are pulling out at the end of July. After over two years and the consequent impact on the tourist trade, sympathy on the island is in short supply. Although continually refreshed by a steady stream of enthusiastic and well-intentioned volunteers, many of the smaller NGOs are exhausted. Humanitarian efforts do not appear to be consistently co-ordinated.
There is some access to Souda but access to Vial is highly restricted. It is hard to see how we can carry out fair and dignified distributions without a presence in Vial or at least regular, unimpeded access. We are lucky to have the support of our donors and know that we can rely on some great volunteers so now need to work with the authorities to demonstrate how we can make their lives easier as well as support the refugees with essential aid.
We have come away with some despair at Europe’s treatment of refugees but a determination to do everything in our power to help. Even small actions can have a big impact.
The warehouse is an essential link in our supply chain – to receive large deliveries and quality control the items before they are distributed on the camp.
With an ever-changing volunteer workforce, we need a system that is easy to understand, maintains consistency and maximises efficiency. Having a founder who is a logistics expert has helped but as with everything we do, volunteers come with their own ideas that mean we are continuously improving the operation.
This video is from our former warehouse in Alexandreia and now we are putting the same systems in place at our new warehouse near Ioannina.
We’ve seen about 450 now from California to New Zealand, from 15 years of age to 78, from all walks of life, all united in a commitment to support the refugees in Greece. What we offer is a system that allows them to get started straightaway and help give some dignity. Every volunteer has built on the previous one to increase and improve what we do and each one can leave knowing that they have made a difference.
We ask volunteers to pay for their own travel, accommodation and subsistence, to come for betweeen 2-4 weeks and to be prepared to get involved with whatever is needed. No special skills are needed – they just need to have a ready smile and want to help.
We’re immensely proud of them and you can read some of their stories here.
If you would like to volunteer, you can start the process here.
Over the last 15 months, we’ve worked with some amazing people and right at the top of the list is Anna, owner of the Hotel Manthos. It’s no exaggeration to say that the hotel was critical to our success in Alexandreia.
Volunteers need somewhere safe and comfortable to stay but Anna did so much more for everyone who stayed there to make them feel part of a loving family, for us as an organisation with our constant demands and for the refugees from the camp. Nothing was too much trouble and always with a smile.
This family run hotel was perfect. Being close to the camp, economical, always open, and with a large restaurant which we took over every morning for our briefing sessions was what we needed. What made it special is how Anna but and her wonderful team – Vaya, Tasos, Sakis and Yannis – made us feel at home.
Teaching Greek, treating us to special Christmas and Easter celebrations, countless birthday cakes, preparing breakfast, looking after people when they were unwell, getting us the best deals, late night whiskey, asking after family, storing our stuff, the list goes on. It was a second home.
Anna hates the idea that we had a business relationship because she felt like we were guests in her family home doing everything she could to give us the best in Greek hospitality.
It was her birthday in February and we managed to return the birthday cake favour but what was really special was seeing her spend the whole day getting messages from all the volunteers whose hearts had been touched by this amazing lady.
Part of what we do is investing in the local economy and we can measure that. If only we could measure the good that is generated by good people doing good things for others.
Using points to shop in the camp mini-markets is all about #aidwithdignity. We can stock whatever different individuals want and they can choose whatever they want from the wide range on offer. This takes control out of our hands and puts it into theirs.
After several frustrating months telling people what they could and couldn’t have, our points system turned that whole experience on its head. Giving people ‘points’ to spend makes the whole shopping experience more normal.
All we had to do was make the space available to them, ensure it was stocked with what the range of things they wanted and count the points. Living on a refugee camp with few or no resources can be humiliating. Not only does this make distribution more dignified for the residents, it’s a happier experience for the volunteers.
Creating the classrooms at Alexandreia is one of our proudest achievements. Thank you to everyone who helped.
In October 2016 we built 2 classrooms for the Ministry of Education to teach the kindergarten kids but when they couldn’t find the teachers we worked with others to create a language school.
We have now handed control of the school over the NRC – the agency responsible for education on the camp. It’s often been the case that small, nimble organisations like ours can get things started quickly until the larger organisations can mobilise their resources.
We have let the camp residents and other NGOs know that we will be leaving Alexandreia at the end of June.
We’ve invested so much time and energy supporting refugees at Alexandreia that this wasn’t an easy decision for us as an organisation. But as always, when there has been a difficult decision to make – and it’s in the nature of what we do that we’ve faced a lot of difficult decisions – we have asked ourselves the same question: what is the best thing to do for the refugees?
Conditions are much better
Since we’ve been working in Alexandreia April last year we’ve seen a complete transformation on the camp. People are are no longer living in tents but air-conditioned ISO containers with fridges and cookers. They now have a lot of clothing. They have been receiving cash since January to spend on food locally that was increased last month. The camp is calm and settled. Critically, people are moving on as they work their way through the asylum process.
As an organisation that focuses on food and clothing in a crisis, it’s become clear that we faced a choice. Either to change what we offer to other essential services like medical care, legal services, housing or training and education; or go to another crisis spot.
There are limits to our capacity
Our shop, boutique and kitchen are a big help to the residents but the reality is we have limited funds and management capacity. We are a volunteer run organisation relying on private donations and small grants to deliver a costly operation.
Meanwhile, refugees in other locations are in much greater need. We know that our donors and our volunteers want us to work where the need is greatest and where as an organisation we can make the greatest difference.
The EU has only relocated about 10,000 of the 30,000 refugees that the EU said it would. There are refugees still living in appalling conditions in Greece. And if we want to look more globally, there are 60 million refugees and internally displaced people many of who need help.
Independence is at the heart of dignity.
How we provide the aid – with dignity – is just as important as what we give.
We believe it is our responsibility to promote and encourage independent living when there is no longer a crisis of food and clothing. We have done that with the regular consultation, support of other NGOs, refugee-run cafeteria, bread ovens and community kitchen.
To continue operating volunteer-run services at Alexandreia would create more harm than good.
We believe this is the right thing to do for both the refugees across Greece as well as for those at Alexandreia. So we will still be working in Filippiada where things are beginning to settle. LM Village is exactly where we want to be: making a valuable and immediate impact to a group of people in need. And we will be at Katsikas when that opens to around 500 refugees in August.
We are always considering other places we are being asked to help.
To all of you who worked at Alexandreia or donated – you’ve made a critical difference to the lives of people who had little or nothing. As a measure of that, we have only had positive feedback from the residents. Not everyone is happy about it but they understand it and they understand that we were vital to their wellbeing over the last year.
Alexandreia camp resident Omar here talks about how the camp’s community kitchen works and how important it is. A joint team of residents and volunteers produce an Arabic meal once a day, six days a week for the camp.
We serve between 150 and 450 nutritious and tasty meals each day and offer that as a take-away service for all residents. The catering provided by the army stopped in April 2017 but even before that, the food was not popular. By providing a range of locally sourced, fresh produce and Arabic spices, we can serve healthy food that we know people want. It’s a great activity for people on the camp to get involved in and a popular activity among the volunteers.
Providing the kitchen was a time-consuming and costly job. The camp management had many health and safety concerns that we needed to overcome and a donor that originally committed to the development pulled out. The support from others and the hard work from volunteers allowed us to persevere and make this one of our most important activities.
This is one of a series of videos that volunteer Victor is producing about our activities.
We are often asked to help out in different camps but will only do that if we are sure we can make a difference and if we know we can consistently deliver on our promises. When we visited LM Village, we met Ahmed who was there with his wife and 2 children, waiting to be reunited with his other son in Germany. He had very little money and had to walk for hours to spend it in an expensive village shop. We knew we had to find a way to help.
The 180 Syrians on the camp – all families so a lot of young children – live in an old holiday village near the beach. While that may sound great, it is the holiday from hell.
It was closed down about 6 years ago so the housing and environment is dilapidated
The tap water is contaminated
The food was bland and very un-Syrian, and even that has now stopped being provided
The nearest shop is about 5kms away with no form of public transport
Essential visits to Athens for their asylum claims are expensive
There is only one other NGO permanently on-site
It’s not all bad.
The local mayor, Syrian-born himself, is very supportive. He was the subject of a UNHCR film about the solidarity he offered to the refugees when they arrived in Greece
The other NGO on site, Schoolbox Project, do a brilliant job providing educational activities to the kids (with one of our former volunteers!)
It’s a great place for volunteers to make a difference while they work and see some of the best of Greece during their well-earned time off
Less than 2 weeks after visiting, thanks to the generous support of Signal of Solidarity, Donate4Refugees, volunteer Emily’s leadership and a lot of hard work, we opened a free Mini Market, stocked with items we know they need and offered to them through our fair and flexible points system.
In our second week, we contracted a weekly bus service to take 50 people from the camp to the local market so they can stock up on extras, give the local Greek traders some business and have a bit of time away from the camp.
In the same week, we bought some gardening equipment as part of our Refugee Engagement programme to help improve the environment where they live.
We started Refugee Support to fill the gaps that other NGOs cannot fill: to be faster and more flexible than the large organisations, more consistent and stable than volunteer groups. LM Village needed someone to fill that gap.
We can make a difference and we are committed to staying. But we can only do that with three things:
We have now been operating as Refugee Support Europe for exactly one year. Here is what we have done.
At the heart of what we do is a system for the collection and distribution of humanitarian aid that is consistent, fair and dignified. We are also committed to buying as much as we can locally to support the Greek economy. No-one is paid a salary and all volunteers pay for their own travel and accommodation.
We started with one shop stocking a few essential items and now we offer range of services, have seen nearly 400 volunteers with another already 60 booked between now and August, spent about £200,000 all for the benefit of the refugees and distributed many donations in kind of food, clothing, toys and household items – all under our guiding principle of Aid with Dignity.
Mini-markets in Alexandreia and Filippiada
The core of our operation, every refugee is entitled to one visit a week to our mini-market under a points based system where we stock whatever food people want and they can choose whatever they want with their points (equivalent to about €5 per person). Dignity of the individual is placed at the heart of the ‘shopping’ experience so that it is quick, calm and friendly. The mini-markets are maintained to a high standard and we’re particularly proud of the fact that the shop has always opened, well stocked and on time.
We’ve been constantly improving those spaces and recently renovated the mini-market in co-operation with the Get Shit Done team.
Boutiques at Alexandreia and Filippiada
Refugees get one visit to a boutique (every 3 weeks in Alexandreia and every 4 weeks in Filippiada) to select 5-6 items of well-presented clothing in a calm, shop environment (with dedicated boutiques for women, men and children in Filippiada). Like the mini-markets, these have always opened. The boutique at Alexandreia has also been recently renovated.
As part of the boutique system we have also done monthly distributions of carefully sorted and well-presented shoes (with a dedicated shoe-tique in Filippiada) and regular distributions of toys and games, when we have enough for all kids, using a points system where the kids get tokens to spend on differently priced items.
The vast majority of shoes and clothing distributed are from well-sorted donations of used clothing but we also buy clothing locally when there is a need, particularly new underwear. We have just ordered 200 pairs of shorts and 200 t-shirts of the right size for men. Last summer we imported 600 specially manufactured abayas from Jordan and will be shortly be placing a second order.
We distribute fabrics and wool and have 7 sewing machines at Alexandreia which we lend out to individuals so that they can make their own clothes.
Preparation in Katsikas
We are nearing completion of the development of a shopping arcade at Katsikas for when refugees arrive. Electricity hasn’t yet been installed so the latest information we have is that they will arrive in the last week of April.
In co-operation with the Timber Project, we have created three boutiques, a shoe-tique, mini-market and will be developing a cafeteria in a reception area. The standard of these distribution centres is well beyond anything else in a refugee camp in Greece.
We rent an off-site warehouses to receive deliveries and sort clothing with a unique storage system using plastic crates.
We have the ability to receive container loads and palleted deliveries in Alexandreia. We have bulk-bought items that we know we will need to save money. We also receive shipments from other partners such as moses baskets from Carry the Future and various items from the UNHCR.
We have been hiring a van and in the process of buying 2 vans to service the camps.
We regularly run physical and creative activities in co-operation with other NGOs on-site.
We have added more equipment to the kids playground at Alexandreia that now has 6 swings, 6 rockers, a trim trail and 2 pieces of climbing equipment.
We have another in development at Filippiada and are also creating a football pitch with goal posts at Alexandreia.
At great cost and after months of negotiation about health and safety, we completely re-fitted and equipped a community kitchen that is run by a joint resident and volunteer team under the guidance of an experienced volunteer chef that produces a hot, nutritious, Syrian meal on a varied menu, once a day, 6 days a week.
This is particularly important given the camp’s low opinion of the food offered by the state, and to give families a break from cooking their own food.
Also a large investment, we renovated a large derelict room with doors, windows, music and television developed from a derelict room which we supply with tea and coffee and maintain and is run by team of residents on the camp.
We have recently redecorated it and are currently consulting with the community about what activities they would like to have in there and how we can support them.
New-born babies and post-partum mothers
Following a tragic incident in July, we arranged for all new-born babies and their mothers to spend time in local accommodation post-partum until they have recovered from the birth.
We have now arranged for 8 babies to be accommodated somewhere comfortable away from the camp until the medical team say that they are OK to return.
Adult and kids language lessons now run 5 times a week from 10:30-4:30 in 2 fully equipped classrooms in Alexandreia (with chairs, desks, teaching materials and whiteboards), following a programme designed and run by an experienced TEFL teacher. We have beginner, intermediate and advanced classes in English for about 70 adults and beginner classes in German for about 20 adults and Greek (led by a local resident) for 3-4 adults.
We have about 80 kids being taught in the mornings before they attend the local Greek school in the afternoons. NRC is also funding an Arabic speaker to support the teaching and are in the process of building classrooms for the under 8s.
The school is also running beginner Arabic lessons for volunteers at lunchtime and a lending library with well-stocked shelves of fully catalogued books, that has lent out 40 books.
Six children at Alexandreia have now corresponded with 16 children around Europe as part of our Refugee Penfriend project and we are expanding that project into Filippiada in co-operation with Project Hope for Kids.
Stepping in when we are needed
The large agencies often struggle to respond quickly to needs when they arise on the camp. When it suddenly got very cold in the camp in the winter (down to -13˚C) and there was no electricity we supplied every caravan with a heater and the gas to supply them.
When there were some children who weren’t able to go to school because they hadn’t been vaccinated, we paid for the vaccines.
In addition to sourcing the kind of clothes people want to wear (for example headscarves and leggings), we supported the breaking of the fast during Ramadan and will be doing the same this year, importing the right kind of food such as dates.
We also provided a sound system, candles, appropriate clothing, fabrics and ice-cream for the Kurdish Newroz celebration
Improving the environment
We distributed a professionally taken and framed family portrait to every caravan to make them more homely.
And recently we added some flowers to the grounds of the camp.
We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers. Every one has to agree to our volunteer agreement, code of conduct and safeguarding policy. They are all interviewed before they are booked into the camp to work for between 2 and 4 weeks. We have volunteer co-ordinators in each camp who stay for longer and they begin every day by leading a daily briefing.
After care is important and we offer a telephone debrief service with a counsellor to talk through their experience and help with any difficulties returning to normal life. And we run a closed facebook page for those who have worked with us for them to share stories, help each other and stay connected.
We hope that this review of the last year has given you a good idea of how important your support can be. And what can be achieved by a group of committed volunteers.
We are more committed than ever and will do all we can to continue offering aid with dignity.